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Friday, August 24, 2012

DISCIPLES AND BELIEVERS


21st Sunday Year B
August 26, 2012

DISCIPLES AND BELIEVERS

It seems to me the third time in these past few weeks that we have exactly the same response after the first reading: “Taste and  see the goodness of the Lord.” Why, you might wonder? Why not? This is also the nth time in a row of Sundays when we are given repetitive reminders about the great Sacrament of the Eucharist.

But before I delve into something at one and the same time sacrosanct and deeply theological stuff, let me lay the human foundations first.

Let me first remind you what transpired in the first reading, and what the second reading seems to be calling our attention to.

The first reading reminds me of a graduation ceremony. The time has come to say goodbye and reap rewards at the end of a well-done journey and well-spent time working. Joshua, who led the people into the promised land, on behalf of Moses, was just about to say good-bye. But parting, among other things, has to do also with assessing. It has to do with knowing who’s who, and who’s for whom, and who values and appreciates what. It has to do with confronting one’s avid followers with a choice of a lifetime. “If it does not please you to serve the Lord, decide today whom you will serve.”

Tough choice, I must say! Life is full of options … then, and especially, now. Just the thought of choosing one bath soap in favor of another can be temporarily paralyzing. I know for a fact that graduating seniors in high school spend endless agonizing hours making a decision which university to go to, or what course to take, or, in our local Philippine scene, even going to further schooling, at all, or trying to eke out half a living by working, and earn subsistence wages (if one can find work!).

But more often than not, our choices have to do with much more important issues. This, the second reading seems to highlight. Should I submit to authority? Should I obey my parents? Should couples lay down the law about who is boss? Should groups of people define exactly the boundaries beyond which all members are not allowed to venture?

Tough decisions, they are, I must confess!

In married relationships, who should wear the pants in the house? Who is to “lord it over” the family? Who is to submit to whom? Unfortunately, the passage from Paul’s letter to the Ephesians often is easily misinterpreted in the light of contemporary sensibilities. But whilst men often use this as a passport to behave oppressively over their wives, - and, women, in general – the whole tenor of the passage does not have anything to do with oppression, but with “submission” to one another. The first verse in the passage (v. 21) lays down the principle clearly: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ.”

No … it has nothing to do with choosing men over women; husbands over wives; rulers over subordinates; leaders over followers.  And yes … it has to do with mutual subordination; mutual obedience – a situation of a two-way relationship between two equals, who each has his or her unique role to play in that relationship.

It is not about choosing for … Nor is it about choosing against.
It is, on the contrary, about deciding. And deciding has to do, not with putting down one so as to heighten somebody else, but simply deciding … simply choosing the good … simply selecting that which makes one better … and standing by one’s decision as disciples … as followers … as believers.

The Gospel, which closes the series of Sundays dedicated to the Eucharist, would have us see the Lord also “confronting” his erstwhile followers. Some of them were followers for a season … they came looking for food … they came looking for healing and well-being … Many of them left when the teaching got a little too hard to swallow!

The Lord knew that the time has come for them to decide. “The words I have spoken to you are Spirit and life. But there are some of you who do not believe.”

I would like to suggest that we, too, are exactly in the same predicament. Some of us are followers for a season. Bonhoeffer called them “fair-weather Christians.” They trailed the Lord behind, for they were waiting to be fed – and not much more. Some of us are followers for a reason. We look for meaning in our lives. We look for solutions to our problems. And when either, or both, are not forthcoming in our lives, despite all our noisy proclamations and protestations, we complain … we murmur, like the Jews who followed Jesus the wonder-worker: “This teaching is too hard.” The Gospel of today tells us: “As a result of this, many of his disciples returned to their former way of life and no longer accompanied him.”

Life is too difficult, at times … in our times! We are hopelessly divided. Disunity and strife envelop us when it comes to certain contentious topics. In our pluralistic society, many of us can’t tell the difference between “catholics for life” and “catholics for choice” and even “catholics for RH,” – and so many others. Many claim to be disciples of the Lord, but some see nothing much about discipleship, but a whole lot of dissent and disagreement. Many claim to believe, but at the same time, claim to belong to some other allegiance. Some authors refer to them as “cafeteria catholics” who look around, shop around, and choose that and only that which runs in parallel lines with what they already believe. They claim to be followers for a reason, but end up being followers only for a season, when the times are good … when the teachings are acceptable … when the hierarchy does not rock the boat … when they tell me only things I want to hear!

Today, the Lord confronts us too. I know that the teachings are too hard. I am the first to acknowledge that. As one in the front lines of evangelization, I am the first to accept the fact that God’s ways are not man’s ways, and that His will is so difficult to understand, and even more difficult to fulfill. As a sinner myself, ever conscious of my personal fragility, I acknowledge that the demands He makes sometimes requires heroic courage and steadfast allegiance to moral truth that is simply hard to follow. When I, as confessor, hear about the daily struggles of people, in their attempts at being both disciples and believers, I know I am face-to-face with a reality that is, at one and the same time, “most personal and most universal.”

The Lord confronts us not so much to make a choice, as to make a stand: “Do you also want to leave?”

I know of one who did take a stand – in favor of being a disciple and a believer at the same time: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life. We have come to believe and are convinced that you are the Holy One of God.”

It is not about choosing one over against another … It is all about deciding … to stay on being both a disciple and a believer … This is what we, too, are called to do. Joshua’s decision might help us here: “As for me and my household, we will serve the Lord!”


Friday, August 17, 2012

THE HOUSE THAT WE ARE CALLED TO BUILD!


20th SUNDAY IN ORDINARY TIME (B)
August 19, 2012

THE HOUSE THAT WE ARE CALLED TO BUILD!

We all make mistakes. The human capacity for error stays with us for as long as we live in and move around mortal earth. To err is, indeed, quintessentially, human! Sometimes, in my quiet moments, the memory of the many times I committed monumental mistakes haunts me. Whilst I cannot say I want to recall them, such memories come unbidden, uninvited, and unwanted. At those instances, I must admit, a flurry of self-embarrassment fills me from head to toe.

But I must tell you, too, that I learned immensely from those mistakes. Some of those learnings are still in time for me to do something about, like having learned to hold my tongue on particular tension-filled situations. But there, too, are some learnings that I cannot do anything about anymore, like the learning that I got already as an adult, that it is never wise, nor good – and, definitely not beneficial – to be playing with mercury taken from disposed of thermometers! I am sure I am not alone in admitting this. Most of my contemporaries did the same – unknowingly, unwittingly, oblivious of its deleterious effects on one’s health.

But the learning experience sure made me wiser – for others. I know better now than to allow children to be playing with things like asbestos, toys laced with leaded paints, mercury, and the like.

Mistakes and missteps brought me more than just learning. They afforded me seeds and nuggets of wisdom. And wisdom has, in many ways, been behind the building of the house that is me, the house, too, that is the society where I belong, and the house of learning born of experience that I still am building!

Yes! God is not done with me yet. 34 years teaching, and almost 30 years as a priest do not guarantee my being the best, but they do help as I endeavor, up till now, to make a “better version of myself,” each time, every time, while I still have time.

Today, the readings, for me, stand for this call from the Lord to become the best version of ourselves, via a deep understanding that learning alone will not give anyone. Learning and being schooled really come from our own human desires. One sets out to get a degree. One wants to grab a title and a piece of paper that others may not have.

But today, the readings tell us about what God desires for us. And when we speak about God’s desires for us, we refer to something more, something higher, something qualitatively superior to mere human, earthly and material learning. God calls us to wisdom. God calls us to build the house of His dreams on the foundations of wisdom, on the pillars of authentic understanding, and on the pylons of Godly fear, and genuine higher values and sublime truths!

The wisdom of this world would have us build on the shifting sand of earthly, material values. The worldly-wise of our days and times would have our people buy into the seemingly cogent and convincing voices that show impending doom with so many births, so much poverty, and so many children growing up in utter misery and want all over the country.  Armed with statistics and studies whose provenance is, for the most part, questionable, the learned and schooled of this world, would have the whole country subscribe to an ideology and stand that are based on values, that while not evil or wrong in themselves, are nevertheless given priority over values that cater to a totally different worldview that comprises more than the here and the now, to include the hereafter.

The heated arguments for or against such worldly wisdom, even from among the ranks that are to be expected never to go against the grain, sort of, show us how shrill the level of discussion is, with so much emotions being invested in it. Both sides are not without blame in terms of using methods that may, at times, even be less than Christian. Name-calling, muck-raking, and labeling seem to all have gotten out of hand in many sectors. Decency in many sectors has gotten out the window of prudence and impassioned discourse. The very wisdom that both parties claim allegiance to, has been debunked and revealed to be no more than tasteless opinionated and emotional arguments designed to hit home and attack, not the message, but the messenger. Bishops and priests are all lumped as pedophiles and other unsavory titles, and old urban legends against the institutional Church are recycled, even without the modicum of objective documentation. The other side, on the other hand, are branded as “wolves in sheep’s clothing,” or as “liars” and a brood of “intellectually dishonest” bigots and fanatics.

Whichever side one is, one can never deny that each one wants to legitimately build an equally legit house. I, too, desire prosperity for the Filipino people. I, too, am the first one to long for more parks and recreation centers, for a nation populated by highly educated and healthy, and happy individuals, where teeming masses of the great unwashed do not lord it over waterways, esteros, and public lands – a nation where children can roam around freely and in peace, and who no longer have to eke out a living for their family beginning at 6 years old.

But no matter how great MY desire is, I need to focus first on God’s own desires for us. The liturgy of today reminds us, precisely, of this higher desire of God for His people. God wants us to have genuine, authentic wisdom, not just s shallow grasp of statistics that make our human desires grow stronger … human desires that all the more lead us to take short-cuts that undermine the very foundations of the wisdom He has come to bring us.

Yes, humanly speaking we want more prosperity. Yes, humanly speaking, we want more health for our people (not only women). But we also want our Filipino men to have greater responsibility, greater inner freedom, and a greater role in building the house of their family life, with spiritual and higher values intact, not blown to smithereens by decisions that are not theirs to make, but the imposition of the powerful state. Whilst the legislation that some quarters of our leadership are pushing attempts really to solve gargantuan problems, what is not clear is whether or not, adopting it would really lead to our human desires, albeit so powerful right now, and so utterly convincing to many people.

I have one thing sure, though, for today. The God who calls us to heavenly wisdom, also gives us the method, the means, and the way to achieve it, in God’s own good time, in our own inner sense of inner freedom – the glorious liberty of the children of God.

I speak of the Eucharist. I speak of Him who invites us today, to really “taste and see the goodness of the Lord.” I speak about His desire for us to build, not a house based on the shifting sands of statistics and figures, but a house built on solid, genuine, authentic, and spiritual values that go beyond the here and the now, towards the hereafter.

This house of faith, this house surrounded by authentic Christian spiritual, and heavenly values is built, not on earthly, but heavenly wisdom, even as the bread we are called to eat, is no more, no less, and no one else but Him, the “living bread that came down from heaven.”

Won’t you help him today to build the house that can only be built on this wisdom?

Saturday, August 11, 2012

PROPHETS ARE PEOPLE, TOO!


19th Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)
August 12, 2012

PROPHETS ARE PEOPLE TOO!

Elijah was apparently weary, tired, and despondent. Jezebel wanted him dead. His prophesies against the false god Baal was taking its toll on his social capital. He was rejected. No … it was more like hated to the bone, abhorred for speaking the truth that hurt people no end.

Rightly or wrongly, at times, such as now, I feel like a little Elijah – treated by people who think they have a divine right to judge me, as pariah.

Elijah definitely had feelings, too. He definitely experienced more than just fear from the scheming Jezebel. He must have felt the heat and the pressure. And when he could no longer stand the heat, he literally went out of the proverbial kitchen, like a beaten dog, tail tucked behind the legs.

Prophets, for all the colorful and, at times, hard-hitting language they use, are definitely people too …

But the pressure and the heat in our postmodern times, come in a multiplicity of forms and guises. When, together with the institutional Church, we priests stand by, stand fast, and stand for, the official teaching of Mother Church, and speak about raging moral issues, we are faced with the full spectrum of responses from the respectful and deafening silence (that does not necessariy mean consent), to vehement, angry, and condemnatory rebuttals designed to deliver maximum damage against the messenger, not the message. Prophets in our times are declared unilaterally in social networking sites as “parasites,” as “liars,” as “pedophiles,” as “disrespectful” and “ancient,” or “medieval,” who walk around in “white gowns” and a whole lot more of unsavory titles and a multiplicity of other sweeping generalizations.

Modern-day prophets, like Elijah, are demonized, caricatured, reduced to absurdity, and attacked from all angles, including the highly sensationalized and exaggerated reports of sexual abuse, courtesy of mainstream, liberal media. The abominable sins and crimes of a few are imputed upon all, directly, obliquely, blatantly, or subtly, as the case may be.

Elijah was a case in point. People did not want to accept the message, so they schemed against the messenger, and plotted to kill the prophet.

It was not too long ago. I did what I thought the people where I worked needed. I organized them to guard their votes. I put up a system to safeguard their right of suffrage. I was hated. I was plotted against. And soon, I had to be whisked away for my life was literally in danger.

It was not too long ago either when, I took up the cudgels for a community who lamented the growing menace of drugs in the place where I worked. I organized awareness seminars. I was trying to move people into action. I preached about it as often as I could. We were making headway. We were growing a bit more committed and dedicated by the day. But we were also making certain individuals more than just a little uncomfortable.

And that was when I got a very subtle - but no less real – threat. I was “advised” to stop it all if I “wanted” to continue on saying Masses!

Prophets are people, too! They have feelings. They also can succumb to fear, to intimidation, to subtle and not so subtle accusations and condemnations.  Elijah hied off to the desert, hiding under a broom tree, wishing he were dead … spent, crushed, demoralized … like I was … not once, not twice, but several times over in my life.

But as someone wrote, “it is always darkest just before dawn.” In pitch darkness, there is promise of light. Down in the lowest depths of discouragement, there is no way but up.

And this, my friend and reader, is the good news – the silver lining that hides behind the lowering dark clouds of seeming despair and despondency.

The God of wonders, the God of compassion, the God of life, and the God who reveals Himself in and through events, in history and in the vicissitudes of human life, here on earth, soon reveals Himself to the man or woman of faith and hope. The attentive seeker soon finds, and the attuned listener soon hears.

What do we hear today?

I would like to suggest two things, culled from Scripture … a command, and a promise.

Command … “Get up and eat!” Buck up … get a hold of yourself, and see the light. Gather yourself and smell the flowers! For the Lord gave Elijah food and drink, and, “strengthened by that food, he walked forty days and forty nights to the mountain of God, Horeb.”

Command … “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were sealed for the day of redemption.” Yes … bitterness, fury, anger, shouting, and reviling, and all malice have no permanent place in the heart of one who believes and hopes, and who waits on the Lord.

Yes, I admit I am discouraged even now. Yes, I admit I experience anger and frustration at the turn of events in our country and people. Yes, I admit there is reviling, even as I speak on behalf of righteousness.

Yes, I admit, too, that I was like unto the Jews, who murmured about what the Lord expects of us, his prophets, to do, and suffer as a consequence.

But today, I would like you and me to hold on to a promise, and hold on to a God of promises and fulfillment who reminds us, “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”

Elijah was commanded to get up. Elijah was told to eat and drink. Like him, we too are commanded, and we, too, are given a promise … in and through the Eucharistic bread, come down from heaven!

Let us all calm down a little today. The God of promise and the God of fulfillment speaks His Word of life: “I am the bread of life. Your ancestors ate the manna in the desert, but they died. This is the bread that comes down from heaven so that one may eat it and not die. I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live forever. And the bread that I will give is my flesh for the life of the world.”

Yes, prophets are people, too. And precisely because we are people,  one with you in faith, hope, and love, we find strength to continue on what we are tasked to do, for no other reason than this certainty of faith: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord!”

Saturday, August 4, 2012

FOOD THAT PERISHES, OR FOOD THAT ENDURES?


August 5, 2012
18th Sunday Year B

FOOD THAT PERISHES, OR FOOD THAT ENDURES?

We complain about many things. We complain about the traffic, now getting worse and worse by the day. We complained a lot last week when a “shallow low pressure area” (whatever that means, caught us all off-guard) and wrought havoc all over complacent Metro Manila area. We complain about leaders when they don’t  deliver as promised. We rant and rave about a multiplicity of things, mostly, to be sure, about things that don’t last … things that don’t matter much except satisfy us for a short while, and not much more.

The Israelites were brought out willingly from slavery in Egypt. They were not forced. They were not misled. They were not prevailed upon. But soon, the complaints started pouring, even as manna kept coming. The bitterness got growing, and the growling became more intense, even as the quails kept them filled – but never satisfied!

The complaints were all directed at Moses! Soon they forgot the very reason why they were out there in the desert. They forgot that they were on a journey towards something else, something more, something greater than what they could scrounge up in the lean and mean desert experience.

But we human beings, like the Israelites, are an unsatisfied lot. Whist we are filled, we remain ever unfulfilled. Whilst we are fed, we seem to be always fed-up with the usual, the routinary, and the ordinary. We always want more. We always look for the ultimate. We keep on aiming for the best, the greatest, the highest, the most sublime, the most supreme! Isn’t that what the summer Olympics is all about? It is all about citius, altius, fortius! … faster, higher, stronger!

Nothing bad. Nothing sinful, to be sure … There is nothing patently wrong in using our best efforts at aiming for the best. Nothing wrong in using our God-given intelligence to look for more, the better, and the greater.

But being satisfied with what one has, or what one is given is something else. It is about detachment. It is about something nobler that humans like us are really capable of doing. It is about being fulfilled, while not necessarily being filled in a way we expect.

Time was when cellphones were just used … well … to make phone calls. Nowadays, cellphones have become smart and people even smarter. Many of us won’t settle for anything less than a smartphone. And many more cannot stand the idea of being stuck forever with a phone that is more than six moths old, left behind by the latest technological marvel.

Time, too, was when the Israelites were happy with what they got – fine flakes for food in the morning and tasty quails toward sundown. Soon, they got tired of them, even as we get tired of old tablets that don’t work with the latest Android or iOS!

Today, there is definitely good news that gives the most definitive answer to all our searchings.

What do we really look for? Let us name a few. Let us be honest. Let us be sincere.

We want the good life. We want the prosperous life. We want a neat life, uncluttered by teeming masses of poor, dirty children out in the streets. We want more parks and recreation centers, not relocation sites for what we don’t directly call parasites in our society. We are too politically correct to refer to them as such. But any other name, no matter how sweet sounding, refers to the same reality. We don’t want too many children whom no one can afford to send to school – and supply with the latest gizmos and gadgets. We don’t want too many of them to crowd our classrooms that are in the first place lacking all over the country.

We want to live the great American dream … sprawling suburbs … healthy women who won’t ever have to die in the process of childbearing … We want to have our cake and eat it, too. We want to enjoy life, untrammeled by so much responsibilities and unhampered by too many demands from so many poor people around us.

We want to be filled. Yes! We want to be rich. We want to be happy. And we don’t want so many people to remind us to be guilty for being such, for wallowing in creature comfort, while so many are living in hovels and dwellings not fit for human dignity!

And so we complain. And so we look for solutions. We don’t want to eat quails each and every single day. We don’t want them fine flakes for food that come to us in the hoar frost each morning. We want designer clothes, designer food, gourmet fare, and everything that is fit for a king! And so we want the RH bill passed into law. We look for the best. Nothing wrong therein! Nothing sinful … nothing amiss … nothing morally wrong!

The Church is grossly misunderstood all the time, all this time – particularly in these tumultuous times, when the nation is divided right smack in the middle. The Church is seen as imposing, as demanding, as being out of touch with the times, as living in the Middle Ages.

And yet, life as we know it, as we learn from Scripture, is not only all about the here and the now. Most people nowadays live in a world of  only two dimensions – the here and the now – when in fact, there ought to be three – to include the hereafter. That means that the values we ought to look for ought to go beyond the here and the now, and answer also for the hereafter.  To be focused on the here and the now is to work only for food that perishes, and not for food that endures to eternal life.

The readings today tell us a mouthful. First, complaining is very human – the easiest thing for us to do as humans, and, by the way, God does not mind. He does not become less a God when we complain to Him. Second, we forget all too easily. Here’s a gentle reminder and nudge from Paul: “you must no longer live as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds.” We forget that life is much more than just about wallowing in creaturely comfort and luxury. We forget that life much more than being filled.

Today, the Gospel reminds us what his more is about. It is about getting what will ultimately fulfill us, not only fill us. God reminds us that there are values that go beyond merely having, and getting our fill. These are heavenly values that the Eucharist, the food that gives life everlasting, gives to those who believe.

Even as the nation is divided, our hearts and minds colored by faith, hope, and love remain steadfast. We stand as one, convinced that the Lord gives us bread from heaven, and that “the hand of the Lord feeds us; He answers all our needs.”

Stand proud and tall my dear friends. You might not be filled right now. You might not be satisfied right now, but we are on the way towards being fulfilled. For ever. For always. For all days. For all time. That is a pledge and a promise of Eucharist, for in the Eucharist, “nobis pignus datur futurae gloriae” – the pledge of future glory is given to us!

August 4, 2012
11:00 AM
National Shrine of Mary Help of Christians
Paranaque City, PHILIPPINES